Books, Television, TV Shows

Surprise, Surprise Dept

A week before the first episode of the Watchmen TV show aired on screen, I found myself writhing with complex emotions about my own intentions. Burdened with the weight of my love for the graphic novel and the creator who has disavowed any media spin-off, completely disillusioned by DC/Warner’s attempts so far to rape the corpse monetize the brand. The 2008 movie adaptation, which I eventually got around to sitting through, is like bleaching your eyeballs and . There was a bucketload of interconnected prequels called Before Watchmen, written by corporate hacks and designed to suck out every ounce of mystery in the series’ backstory, copies of which now frequent bargain bins. Moore-wannabe Grant Morrison has of course been ejaculating occasional spurts of verbose comic scripts over the years, each attempt touted as the next series that will out-Watchmen Watchmen, to no avail. Even as I write this, Fanboy-turned-Nostalgia-Humper Geoff Johns is wrapping up his 12-issue corporate manifesto, called Doomsday Clock, which is a concerted effort to incorporate the characters of Watchmen into the DC Universe proper. Because why bother with something that is one of a kind, when you can have multiple mediocre copies? (See also: Star Wars sequels, “franchises”)

Yet. I could not resist the siren song of the “fresh take” that the HBO TV series promised, the endless cross-media sound-bytes about respect and wanting to abide by the spirit of the original series. There it was, the curiosity of the pop-culture optimist that desperately wants to believe that it is possible to improve on the past without shitting all over it. I would like to think that it’s never been my position to confine myself and to wallow only in things gone by, especially when it comes to the arts. Every year, there are new books and music, films and comics that leave me flabbergasted and filled with enormous joy at how they chart new paths despite all that has gone by. Yes, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen was…is incredible. But if a creator comes out and says he can remix it, my interest is piqued.

But there was trepidation, too. This was Damon Lindelof, the guy that, for every season of Lost, also has Star Trek: Into Darkness. For all the good he has done with adapting Tom Perrotta’s Leftovers, let us not forget that he also co-wrote Cowboys vs Aliens. Which side of the shit/gold bucket would this attempt be shelved?

Three episodes in, and I wasn’t expecting this.

This. THIS. Sitting down on a weekday night to write about a show that is just three episodes in. I wasn’t expecting the universal adulation that would make me sit and watch the first episode the day it was aired. I definitely did not think that Angela Abar and Judd Crawford would scratch that corner of my brain that, in times past, Walter White and Jessie Pinkman seared with guns, acid, and dark dramedy. At the end of every hour-long episode, I have wondered at the things I did not notice in this densely-packed motherloving work of love, and have marveled at threads that were woven, tightened, and dangled in front of me. Three episodes in, and I am all in. There has to be a substantial amount of fucked-up ball drops in the next six episodes for me to change my mind, and based on empirical evidence, I don’t think that will be the case.

Random things off the top of my head:

  • The first episode has people saying out the Roman poet Juvenal’s Latin phrase out loud, the very same phrase that the name of the series and the book are derived from.
  • Robert Redford’s ascension to the Presidency was hinted at in the last page of the graphic novel, as was the publication of the Rorschach papers
  • Pagers and rotary phones instead of the Internet is a bold idea
  • The first words Louis Gossett’s character says to Angela: “Do I look like somebody who can lift 200 pounds?” refers to their next meeting, under the tree
  • Time seems to pass differently around Adrian Veidt and his acolytes, and I wonder if this arc is the Black Freighter equivalent of the book
  • Scenes mirror the beats in the book, and there are red herrings. The shooting of the policeman in the car in the very first scene turns out to not be the death that launches the story.
  • Pirate Jenny, Red Scare, Sister Night, and Looking Glass are excellent vigilante names
  • The interplay of words, voice-overs, scene transitions, and narrative beats is eerily precise, just like the book. The final scene of episode 3 is not just a denouement to the brick-layer’s daughter theme of the episode, it is an echo of the last lines spoken in episode 2.
  • I don’t own a record player, and I have made myself a promise to never buy vinyl, but the three-LP soundtrack to the series, of which the first one has been released and the other two are due later this month, is the closest I have come to breaking this vow. The drone-and-beat infused sonic washes that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are known for suit the mood and tone so, so much.
  • Did you know about the Peteypedia, HBO’s “enhanced materials” website that accompanies every episode of the show?

Tick tock, five days till next episode.

Additional Reading:

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Books

Hedgehog, Europa

It’s rare for me to buy books without having a solid reasoning framework built in my head. There are enough titles on my shelves, both analog and digital, to keep me entertained for the next century and a half. But I bought Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog and Gourmet Rhapsody just because I liked how the books looked. It also helped that they were a dollar each, but mostly, I liked how they looked.

I read Hedgehog last month, and while I had reservations about parts of it, especially the ending, the book is just the right combination of bittersweet story and sugary pop philosophy. Some of the “deep” bits are a little too heavy on the cream and sugar, but it’s the focus on the characters that save the book from becoming a cloying souffle. Renee, the secretive autodidact who runs a building without revealing her love of Russian literature and Japanese film to the world at large, and seeks to lead a life of painful mediocrity because of a lifetime of class-based presumptions that come her way. And twelve-year old Paloma, a resident of the same building, who thinks the world does not contain anything that could surprise her, and whose plan for her next birthday involves suicide. The first part of the book shows us parallel lives that occupy the same geographic location but are worlds apart, and as the two find their lives intertwined, there are expectations subverted, and cliches adhered to, at the same time.

“I wanted to burn the book after the end :)”, my friend D texted me, when I told him I finished reading it. He’s French, and I just had to find out what he thought of it. I understood his reaction, kind of. It’s not the ending one expects, though the movie does a slightly better job of showing the ramifications. Oh, there is a movie, of course. I picked it up from the library even as I was running through the last few pages of the book.

Now, back to the cover design. Europa Editions, the company that published this, is known for two things — their choice of great books around the world to translate into English, and their design aesthetic. All their books have French flaps, use the same title font (Garamond?), feature the Europa logo of a stork featured prominently on the bottom right, and they have the same size. This is really staggering consistency, considering that every writer/publisher combo out there seem to want their book to pop on the shelves with different heights and aesthetic. Europa’s look is intentional, however. Their books are all translations and span multiple genres, and the cover design is by a single designer, Emanuele Ragnisco. As Ragnisco mentions in a 2010 interview

I approach each cover design as if it were a “small manifesto,” one whose goal is to communicate to the potential reader that this book contains something that concerns him directly. The second goal is to distinguish the cover in question from every other cover. We address the first question by individuating the most appropriate language. By “language” I mean the language of signs. In the choice of a particular sign, we posit our response to the first goal. The problem of making each cover stand out from others is more complicated. The solution lies in carefully studying what is currently out there. At certain times, color dominates jacket design, and so a cover that is pure white is likely to stand out. At other times, covers with an abundance of design particulars are predominant, and the intelligent choice in terms of visibility may be a simple, pure design.


The brand identity of these covers are unparalleled, my eyes can immediately locate a Europa book in the new arrivals section. Another interesting fact is the choice of the stork as emblem. The bird is known for a migratory pattern from east to west and then south, in Europe. The company began in Italy by publishing books from Eastern Europe, thereby mirroring the journey of their bird of choice.

Among the other works of note they bring out, the one writer that I keep meaning to read from them happens to be Elena Ferrante. But somehow, other books keep getting in the queue. Ironically, somehow people seem to think that the Ferrante book covers are “hideous”, and “trashy”, and “evocative of a $4 romance book found at a gas station“. Chip Kidd apparently unloaded on them in a podcast, and you can read a critique and a breakdown of the design, followed by a redesign of the cover to My Beautiful Friend here. While I love the in-depth analysis on the site, I still think Ragnisco’s covers serve their purpose wonderfully.

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Myself

My World This Week

  • The Krazy Kat Kwest comes to a Klose. I plan to write more about this, but I got the second volume of Fantagraphics’ long-out-of-print hardcover edition of Krazy and Ignatz, spanning 1925-34, around 600 pages, as well as the oversized Taschen reprint of the color Sundays from 1935-44. Both came in the mail via different sources, and many happy hours were spent poring, and giggling over, the antics of Krazy, Ignatz, and Offissa Pup.

  • Lynda Barry and Ocean Vuong were both among the recipients of the Macarthur Genius Grants for 2019. I am attending a talk between Barry and Chris Ware on October 15, and looking forward to it hugely.

  • Travellers of the Third Reich was a book that accompanied me nearly all week. Subtitled “The Rise of Fascism through the Eyes of Everyday People”, the book is an excellent example of how people living through historical events misinterpret, misjudge, and are sometimes completely oblivious to it. It is only with the benefit of hindsight and multiple streams of information that we arrive at conclusions, decades in the future, of what really happened. Fascinating and chilling at the same time.

  • The deluge of terrible Batman stories continues, with Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Batman: Damned just out. Today there was supposed to be a signing by the creators at Vroman’s in Pasadena, and I almost made it there, except I decided to read the book beforehand. The dispassionate part of me tries to say that maybe I am really too old for this shit, while another side ignores all niceties and throws up streams of contempt at the intellectual bankruptcy of it all. This is a sweaty, incoherent mess of a comic-book, and the artwork of course plays the role of putting layers of rouge on a fetid, fly-ridden dung-heap. Not that there aren’t people who lose their minds over the “grittiness” of a story that has the Joker dead, Batman being portrayed as a leather-clad psychopath who is haunted by literal demons from childhood, and guest appearances from the occult corners of the DC Universe. If you bring your nose closer to the pages, you may smell a potent mix of Axe body spray and desperation. Fuck this book, fuck the intellectually bankrupt creators who are raping the Killing Joke corpse, and fuck the market for supporting crap like this.

  • Watched Booksmart again, now that it is available on digital platforms. $10 4K UHD on Vudu, why not? The karaoke sequence still makes me pee with hysterical laughter, and there has never been a better use of the word ‘Malala’ in popular culture. The soundtrack has been a summer staple, and rewatching the film made me rediscover some tracks even better, with the visual context. ‘Double Rum Cola’, though, man. What a track.

  • LA Find of the Week: The Inn of the Seventh Ray, a restaurant high up in Topanga Canyon. Excellent place for a morning buffet, and the drive is pure adrenaline, especially in an open-top Jeep Wrangler.

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Travel

#CoolLAThings – The Lost Spirits Distillery Tour

I’ve done it twice so far, each time with a different set of friends, and it has been different both times. A distillery tour that is very different from what you might expect. Lost Spirits is a chemistry experiment occurring in the world of alcohol, one that seeks to recreate flavors of beverages such as whisky, rum, and brandy by aging chemicals in reactors instead of, as distillers do, in barrels. The difference is time — what traditionally takes years, even decades, happens in six days here. The result is a stunning opportunity to experiment with flavors and distillation processes, giving them a startup-y vibe when it comes to their products. It would be one thing if they were just mad scientists trying to keep up with the big boys, but the weird thing about these guys is that their drinks are really. Fucking. Good. They have won multiple awards for their bottles of whiskey-equivalents and rum-equivalents (with names derived from The Island of Dr Moreau), but what really takes it to another level is their distillery tour. Part amusement park ride, part loopy-DIY craziness, all fun, the tour started as a way to entertain friends of friends, and then proceeded to become a little-advertised, word-of-mouth phenomenon with tickets sold out months in advance.

The venue has changed between my last visit and this current one, which happened this Sunday. Among the few differences — a longer boat ride, a more convoluted maze, a brighter look and feel, two bus rides, one with an steampunk underwater theme, and the other with a French cabaret vibe. Turns out that an accidental electrical fire at their older venue got them to dream bigger, and implement better.

Picture borrowed from Axis of Whiskey

But seriously though, both the place and the concept are still incredible, the second time around. The aesthetics of the place combined with the alchemical wizardry these guys bring to their spirits knock my socks off. Their stories are fantastic, including their quest to recreate the original Mai Tai cocktail. You see, the original cocktail was created to highlight the flavor of a J Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum batch that was aged 17 years during the Prohibition years and lost the company a great deal of money. The cocktail, Vic Bergeron’s concoction, deemed “out of the world, the best!” by patrons from Tahiti (translated from ‘Maita’i roa a’e, ergo the name) became super popular, while that particular batch of rum ran out. Tiki fads and the onset of commerce took its toll on the mai tai, and today’s version is considered much, much different from the original.

I don’t want to rob the Lost Ones of their chance to tell the story themselves — it’s a highlight of the tour, after all. Suffice it to say, the adventure involves an endangered species of trees, a fifty-thousand dollar bottle, an antique dresser, smoke damage from a fire, and of course, experiments galore. By the time we arrived at the last quarter of the trip, exit through the gift shop, I had whipped my credit card out to jump on the ‘Cry of the Puma’, my favorite among the whiskeys. And the rhyming birds just added to the fun, one of the few things that hadn’t changed from my previous trip

Keep it kooky, Lost Spirits, and….uh….could I get a refill please?

For further perusal:

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Myself

Of Foes, Lovers, and Letters Through Time

Possibly one of the most beautiful books I have read this year, this 200-page epistolary novel (novella?) co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. With chapters that tumble through timelines and settings, called Strands, in a seemingly-eternal war between two factions. One of them a “viney hivey elfworld” and the other a “techy mechy dystopia”, both laying down strategies that span multiple centuries and possibilities. All so that their side may win.

None of that is important.

What matters is the flow of words that mold the shape of the story, an exchange of letters between two agents on the opposing sides, named Red and Blue. These are not the only names the two use for each other, for the messages that begin as a trickle of taunts and challenges soon become missives laced with humor, flirtations, and emotions laid bare. With their words, they slash and thrust and parry, and very soon, they insinuate themselves in the other’s mind and heart. “Words can wound, but they can be bridges, too”, to quote a line.

The book made me lament the fact that over the years, everything we write seems to become terser, to the point. Like we have forgotten to surf through our ideas, to race through our waves of thought and action and slow them down into a dance of spaces and characters, punctuation and pause. We revel in our economy of discourse, images embedded with a sprinkle of words on the side, coated with a side of irony, all erasing the primal weaponry of words. We feel relief, both at saving ourselves the trouble of over-sharing, and of having saved the other person some time by compressing both our words and perhaps our feelings.

Even typing this feels wrong, like yelling into a void from where nothing echoes back. This feels like a predictable yearning for something which never really existed, the kind of weltschmertz that also seems to haunt one’s soul at a particular age. But mostly, it feels like a pity that no one I know ever says, “Tell me something true, or tell me nothing at all.” The small joy that reading a simile like “apophenic as a haruspex” brings.

Behold, the peerless use of language to both evoke emotions, and establish the character. This is Red, she of the technological antecedents.

I bite blueberry pancakes drizzled with maple syrup, extra butter — that expanding fluff, the berry’s pop against my teeth, butter’s bloom in my mouth. I explore sweetnesses and textures. I am never hungry, so I don’t race to the next bite. I eat glass, and as it cuts my gums, I savor minerals, metals, impurities; I see the beach from which some poor bastard skimmed the sand. Small rocks taste of the river, of rubbed fish scale, of glaciers long gone. They crunch, crisp, celery-like.

And this is part of a letter from Blue, she of the forest and the vale.

I love you. If you’ve come this far, that’s all I can say. I love you and I love you and I love you, on battlefields, in shadows, in fading ink, on cold ice splashed with the blood of seals. In the rings of trees. In the wreckage of a planet crumbling to space. In bubbling water. In bee stings and dragonfly wings, in stars. In the depths of lonely woods where I wandered in my outh, staring up — and even then you watched me. You slid back through my life, and I have known you since before I knew you.

I feel like I need to reread this book. Or better still, listen to it. Audio-books no longer put me to sleep, and Time War feels like the perfect candidate for a voice-over at the start of a work-day.

Highly, highly recommend.

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